1993-04 Bowl with Bird Hanging from Sky Band Design

Object ID:

Nampeyo 1 (unsigned)

Corn Clan, Tewa, Tewa Village

3.625"h X 10.50" w

Hopi white-slipped bowl with three-color polychrome Sikyatki abstract-avian image, tadpoles, and sky band by Nampeyo, ca.1895-1905 CE.  The first photograph shows Rick Dillingham holding the bowl.

The earliest photograph we have of Nampeyo with her pottery was taken in 1893 and shows her with two bowls (Kramer, 1996: 48, 50 and 167; Struever, 2001: 27 and 29).  The design on the two bowls is taken directly from an  ancient Sikyatki bowl that was in the Keam Trading Post at Hopi and was sold by Keam in 1892 to Jesse Walter Fewkes and is now in the Peabody Museum, Harvard.  Tellingly there is a substantial similarity between the design on the ancient bowl and bowl 1993-04.  Apparently Nampeyo saw the ancient bowl at the trading post, was impressed by its design, and adopted the design into her repertoire.


Sikyatki polychrome bowl, 1375–1625 CE

Peabody Museum, Harvard #44-13-10/27101


Aside from its aesthetic value as a piece of art, bowl 1993-03 is the pivotal pot in this collection for two reasons:

First, this bowl is as close as I am likely to get to that moment when Polacca “D” pottery gave way to the more commercially successful Hano Polychrome/Sikyatki Revival ware that for the last 120 years has defined “Hopi pottery.”

Polacca ware, which was the usual Hopi/Tewa pottery of Nampeyo’s youth, is characterized by its white kaolin clay slip, often crackled, and was the common Hopi pottery type from about 1790 to 1900.  Following this tradition, Nampeyo applied a kaolin slip to bowl 1993-04:

“Nampeyo frequently applied a thin slip of white clay to the surface with a swab of wool, and the pot was set aside again to dry (Kramer, 1996:72).”

Over a few years bridging the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Hopi pottery radically changed, abandoning Polacca ware forms, finishes and design and replacing them with pottery inspired by the old Sikyatki tradition. See Appendix A for details of this transition.  Bowl 1993-04 is a snapshot of this rapid change.  As Nampeyo transitioned from Polacca ware to a revival of ancient Sikyatki forms and decoration, bowl 1993-04 was an intermediate step: still using the old Polacca white slip but now applying Sikyatki designs on it.  Soon after bowl 1993-04 was made, Nampeyo began to float her designs directly on the polished surface of her pots, as was the practice of the ancient Sikyatki potters. These pots were a commercial success and were quickly copied by other Hopi/Tewa and Hopi potters.  Since Nampeyo was the public face of this Sikyatki Revival style, bowl 1993-04 is not only an example of this transition in Nampeyo’s style, but also an an important marker of Hopi and Hopi/Tewa pottery history.

Second, bowl 1993-04 is a pivotal pot because its interior design, labled “bird hanging from sky band,” persisted as a central design motif throughout Nampeyo’s painting career,  from at least 1893 until she became functionally blind and could no longer paint, about 1920. I believe the design played a key role in Nampeyo’s development as an artist.  By repeatedly drawing variations of this design Nampeyo trained her mind, eye and hand and absorbed the pottery vision of ancient Hopi potters.  Artists today intentionally use the same learning technique when they set up a easel in a museum and copy a master work.  As a result of repeatedly drawing versions of the bird-hanging-from-sky-band design, Nampeyo developed six iconic design techniques that would mark her as a “genius” ceramicist.  See the details below.

The form:

Bowl  1993-04 is well-formed.  The bottom and sides are of even thickness, substantial but not thick.  The rim has the extra coil that characterizes Nampeyo’s Sikyatki Revival bowls. The bowl is slipped on both the interior and exterior, though an extra coat of particularly white  slip seems to have been have been applied to the interior below the rim coil.  Where the slip has crackled or flaked, it reveals that a light-colored clay was used for the body of the bowl.

The design: interior

The curved interior of the bowl is about 11-inches across. Below the rim coil are thick-over-thin framing lines, which were not a feature of Polacca ware but do reflect ancient Sikyatki convention.  All of the designs on the interior are edged with a thin black line.  Notice the darker red lunette, about 2-inches wide, 18% of the design width.  Evenly spaced in the lunette are four black tadpoles, symbols of the water of spring rains.  A 0.75-inch unpainted strip parallels the linear edge of the lunette.  At its center is a thick black boundary line that visually separates the lunette from the rest of the design.

Above is the largest element of design: a base with three parallel linear feathers emerging from each side.  In its center is a rectangular element bracketed by thick parentheses. The set of feathers to the left emerge from a common light red base, its bottom edge concave against the bracket.  The red base of each feather terminates with a thin black line, followed by a narrow unpainted surface.  From this point to the curved tip, the feathers are painted a solid black. The feathers to the right are somewhat different.  They too emerge from a common base that is concave against the bracket , but this base is unpainted.  They too have solid black and curved tips, but –unlike the first set of feathers–the transition from base to tip is not moderated by an intermediate design.

The tips of each curved black parentheses in the base are connected by a thick black line, forming a set of hollow lunettes that are perpendicular to and reflect the the larger red lunette below. Parallel to the linear edge of each black lunette is an unpainted strip with a single thin line at its center, a “two-lane highway” that was frequently used by Nampeyo to separate her elements of design.  Between these two strips of highway is a rectangular area at the center of the base.

This rectangle is monochromatic with a diagonal unpainted center strip cutting across the space from the top left to the bottom right.  The edges of this strip are notched with 14 steps on the top angle and more than 13 steps on the bottom.  (A small worn area of design in this area has obliterated the details.)  In the center of the diagonal is what appears –at first glance– to be a thin zig-zag black line.  On closer examination, however, this center line is not a continuous brush stroke, but rather a series of more than 24 distinct and conjoint small rectangles.  The lower right corner of each rectangle  touches the upper left corner of its neighbor.  Nampeyo’s decision to draw distinct segments rather than simply a single line is an indication that she was taking her time painting this bowl and enjoying her creative process.  Notice that if the white central diagonal is seen as a single form, its linear jagged edge reflects the stepped black line at its center. Embedding one element inside a larger similar element and letting the two images play against each other is the kind of subtle design strategy that you can discover in Nampayo’s work and makes her work unique.

The residual black triangular corners of this rectangular central space are themselves hollowed out at their right angle corners.  Into this unpainted square is set a greek key with three 45-degree turns, its base a wide black rectangle, the remaining three lines considerably thinner.  Notice that this thick/thin contrast creates a visual tension, a consistent Nampeyo effect.   Such internal tension is missing from the work of other potters at Hopi, who would have drawn the greek key with a line of consistent width.

This same central rectangle was used by Nampeyo on an eagle-tail seedjar housed in the Indian Arts Research Center at the School of American Research in Santa Fe (catalogue# IAF.1207),  illustrated in Whitaker and Parker, 2007:79.  On the SAR jar the central diagonal runs from upper right to lower left, the reverse of the bowl discussed here.

As described above, the right three feathers in the base emerge from a common unpainted area. The top right corner of this area, above the top feather, bulges out to form a stubby thumb.  Set around this unpainted form is the base of a large sickle-shaped curved form.  Because it conforms to the unpainted thump, the base of this sickle takes the shape of two points, the top rendition long and thin while the bottom point is relatively short and wide. The upper and longer edge of the sickle form is 7.5-inches long and below it are four elements of design.  For the first 5 inches this curved shape is painted with a solid dark-brown color. The next inch is unpainted except that inset into the near end is a black design consisting of two solid half-spheres (“gumdrops”) with their flat bases facing each other and separated by a thin unpainted space with a line down its middle (a “two lane highway”).  Writing in the 1890’s and based on Native informants, Alexander Steven interpreted these gumdrops as cloud images (Patterson,19xx:yy).  The design is a favorite of Nampeyo (cf XXX, YYY, ZZZ……) Following the largely unpainted section is a solid black triangular area that bring the sickle to its point.  The black point then continues 2 inches as a thin line and strung on this line are three solid black balls, the last sprouting three linear hairs.  Following Alexander Fewkes (XXX:yy) interprets these balled images as “patois” (sp?), or prayer feathers that carry prayers for rain.

Back to that unpainted base of the right set of tail feathers: it’s complicated.  The upper edge of the brown sickle does not quite touch the upper edge of the top feather, leaving a gap of about 0.25-inches.  The unpainted base of the feathers seeps through this gap and expands into an asymmetric form.  Starting at this gap, and thus starting also from the base of the brown sickle, a second unpainted black-edged sickle form emerges, its lower edge about 4.75-inches long.  The upper edge is shorter (4.0-inches) because as it nears its base it suddenly forms a right angle and runs about 1-inch until it reaches the lower framing line.  Below this 1-inch line is additional unpainted space that is residual between the three black tips of the feathers and the framing line.  Looking at these two sickle forms, my eye is unsettled and it took a while for me to figure out why.  Whereas both of the sickle forms already discussed sweep to the left off their bases, the residual space between then also forms a sickle shape and its sweeps in  the opposite direction, from left to right.  The overall design has great right-to-left motion from  two arched shapes, but this effect is contradicted by the leftward motion of the residual shape between the. Once again we see how Nampeyo uses a design strategy that builds visual tension, a characteristic almost unique to her designs and another indicator of her aesthetic genius.

Finally, below the arch of the brown sickle and floating freely between it and the feathered base below is a symmetric butterfly-shaped element consisting of an unpainted square core with three solid-black round-tipped feathers emerging from two parallel sides.  Notice how these two pairs of three feathers reflect the form of the more elaborate sets of three feathers below them, thus integrating the design.  The center of the butterfly is not entirely unpainted but rather is divided into upper and lower sections by two parallel lines, a “one-lane highway.”  Above and below this highway are sets of three parallel dashes. Wade interprets this element as a “xxxx”(xxx:yyy).

The design: exterior

The two monochromatic exterior glyphs on bowl 1993-04 seem simple, but repeat some of the visual tricks seen on the bowls interior.  The glyphs can be seen as a rectangular core with right angle triangles emerging from each corner.  The triangles are oriented so that their 90-degree corners are part of the exterior horizontal line of the glyph.  Their hypotenuses merge near their bases so that at end of the glyph the triangles share a common base.  Of the four pairs of triangles, in three instances the triangles share a base about o.25-inch wide.  For one example, the base is twice as wide, 0.5-inch thick.  The center core of the glyph is not solid black, but incorporates two unpainted  isosceles triangles, their points facing each other.  Thus the glyphs are defined by triangular shapes, four black triangles at the corners and two unpainted triangles at their center.  Notice, however, that the unpainted space between the end triangles form a reverse-facing triangle  that visually reinforces the central unpainted triangles at the center of the glyph.    Thus the pair of right pointing black right triangles at each end of the glyph is accompanied a pair or left facing unpainted isosceles triangles.  There is an obvious tension of motion between these sets of triangles that enliven the exterior glyphs.

Glyphs are not  found on Polacca ware, but common on ancient Sikyatki bowls.

Nampeyo’s six Sikyatki Revival design strategies:

While bowl 1993-04 can glibly be seen as a copy of the ancient Sikyatki bowl in the Peabody Museum, it is more accurate to say that the ancient bowl was an inspiring starting place for Nampeyo.  Nampeyo was in her mid to late 40’s when she made bowl 1993-04.  She had probably been making pottery for close to 35 years.  I began this catalog entry by saying that bowl-1993-04 is a pivotal pot in this collection for two reasons: 1) It marks Nampeyo’s transition from Polacca ware and experimentation to settling into a Sikyatki Revival style that would make her famous and change the form of Hopi/Tewa and Hopi pottery.  2) The design on the ancient bowl taught Nampeyo design strategies that defined her later work and mark her as a genius.  I’ve suggested several of these strategies already, but here will more systematically organize the discussion.

In spite of its transitional nature of bowl 1993-04, most of the six strategies seen on Nampeyo’s later work are found on it:

A tension between linear and curvilinear elements.

The six large linear tails in the base and the six smaller tails on the “butterfly” design give a strong linear sensibility to this design.  In contrast, the large brown-based sickle shape rising off the base and the smaller lighter unpainted sickle above it introduce a strong curvilinear motion, as does the less-obvious residual sickle between them.

A deliberate asymmetry of design

By definition this design is not symmetric.  There is no axis where it can be folded and have elements overlap. Notice  also the extra intermediate design element in the three left feathers that emerge from the base, a small detail not shared by the three feathers to the right.  For Nampeyo, her asymmetry is often subtle, perhaps subliminal for most viewers.

The use of color to integrate design elements

While this effect is somewhat present on bowl 1993-04, it is not as clearly developed as on Nampeyo’s later Revival pots.  Nevertheless, imagine the difference if only the large lunette was red and all the rest of the design were monochromatic black.  The two sections of design would be visually segregated.  Instead on bowl 1993-04 the red lunette is visually tied to the pale red base of the feathers above it.   The design is formed from 5 colors: dark red, light red, black, brown and the unpainted sections internal to the design: an unusually large number.  Other than black, there is no color that is used across several sections of design.  Thus black may be seen as a unifying color, though on most examples of Nampeyo’s Sikyatki Revival pottery red serves this function.

The use of empty (negative) space to frame the painted image

The two painted sickles rise into unpainted space, which give these forms room to soar.  Moreover the empty space below the painted sickle has the shape of a teardrop that both frames the “butterfly” and adds  its own shape and motion to the design.  (The unpainted shape at the center of  Nampeyo canteen 2019-12 serves a similar function.)

The use of thick above thin framing lines on the interior rim of her bowls

Such framing lines are present on bowl 1993-03.  They were not used on Polacca ware, but are common on ancient Sikyatki bowls.

Nampeyo’s painting is confident, bold and somewhat impulsive compared to the more-studied, plotted and careful style of her daughters, descendents, and other Hopi/Tewa and Hopi potters.

This is the most subjective of the six design strategies, but evidence is available.  The bowl is about 33.5″ in circumfrance.  The thick and thin framing lines encircle the interior and are a fraction of an inch apart, yet never touch.  Precisely drawing two circular lines of this length on the interior of a bowl requires a confident hand. Similarly the many curved lines that form the small lunettes and the larger sickle shapes are drawn evenly and coordinate to form symmetrical points.  The large black tails are bold, as is the painted sickle.  Interpreted  somewhat differently, the terms “confident and bold” can express themselves as a willingness to improvise with unusual combinations of design elements. On this bowl the zig-zag chain of small rectangles at the center of the design base is embedded at the center of an unpainted strip with stepped edges.  The result is a dialogue and visual tension between elements of similar form.  Nampeyo “had exceptional talent and received an inherent satisfaction in making pottery (Kramer, 1996:161).”

Interestingly, however, the painting is impulsive and not perfect.  The lower black-tipped feather on the right and the upper black feather on the left have linear framing lines projecting past their points, which “should” be empty space.  Similarly the lower left black-tipped feather extends beyond the thick framing line and touches the thick framing line above, another “error.” On the exterior glyphs, the base of one set of right-angle triangles is twice as wide as on the other three pairs. On most Hopi and Hopi/Tewa pots, such errors are avoided.  Nampeyo, however, liked to play with her paint and designs and does not seem to have given much weight to such inaccuracies.

To summarize: the earliest evidence we have of Nampeyo painting shows her painting a version of the “bird hanging from sky-band” design found on both the ancient Peabody bowl and bowl 1993-03. Nampeyo did not directly copy the ancient pottery, but was directly inspired by it and the resulting development of Sikyatki Revival changed the character of pottery made at Hopi. Although an early transition bowl bridging two styles, bowl 1993-04 displays at least 5 of the 6 design strategies that mark Nampeyo’s mature Sikyatki Revival style.

Early appreciations of Nampeyo:

As early as January 1893, Alexander Stephen, living at First Mesa, acknowledged “Numpe’yo”  as a “distinguished Tewa potter” (1936:130).

Reporting on an archeological expedition to Arizona in 1895, Jesse Fewkes reported that:

“The most expert modern potter at East Mesa is Nampeo, a Tanoan woman is a through artist in her line of work.  Finding a better market for ancient that for modern (Polacca) ware, she cleverly copies old decorations, and imiatates the Sikyatki ware almost perfectly.  She knows where the Sikyatki potters obtained their clay, and uses it in her work.  Almost any Hopi who has a bowl to sell will say that it is ancient, and care must always be exercised in accepting such claims (1898:660).”

Fewkes regularly used the research of Alexander Stephen without much attribution, so it is ironic that Fewkes seems to cast aspersions on Nampeyo’s honesty.

In August 1896, while at Hopi to observe the Flute Ceremony at Walpi, Walter Hough and Jesse Fewkes visited Nampeyo to be instructed on pottery-making.  Hough wrote of this visit in a book published 19 years later.  While appreciative of the historic culture of the Hopi people, notice that his observations also mention the racism of his culture:

“Everyone who visits Tusayan (Hopi) will bring away as a souvenir some of the work of Nampeyo, the potter who lives with her husband (at)…Hano…Nampeyo is a remarkable woman.  No feeling of her racial inferiority arises even on the first meeting with this Indian woman, bare-foot, bonnetless, and clad in her quaint costume.  For Nampeyo is an artist-potter…(1915:75-76).”

At about the time that Nampeyo made bowl 1993-04, Walter Hough returned to the Hopi mesas as part of  The (Smithsonian) Museum –Gates Expedition of 1901.  In his report, he summarizes the history of pottery making at Hopi and recognizes Nampeyo:

“It appears that comparatively recently the potter’s art died out among the Hopi of Middle and East Mesas and that by the law of village specialization of an art, Orabi (on Third Meas) retained the making of pottery until shortly after 1872, when Dr. J. W. Powell visited the pueblo.  The later Orabi art shows marked Zuni influences.  The Tewans (on First Mesa), however, practiced the art uninterruptedly, and it has come to be that finally, at the close of the (current) period, the pottery used by the Hopi is of Rio Grande (Tewa) extraction, even though it has been throughly debased, like many of the arts of the American Indian.  Nampeyo, an intellignet Tewa woman, however, is endeavoring to revive the glories of former times (1903:347).”

Bowl 1993-04 is an example of precisely the effort by Nampeyo  that Hough saw as “endeavoring to revive the glories of former times.”

One other pot in this collection also combines painting from Polacca and Sikyatki traditions traditions: “Tray with Polacca style interior, Sikyatki Revival exterior” (2017-04).  In this case the classic 19th century Polik’Mana interior design was painted by Nampeyo on a smooth thin film of white slip, in contrast to the thick crackled white interior slip seen on bowl 1993-04.  The exterior of tray 2017-04 displays standard Sikyatki designs floated directly on the surface of the vessel.


Purchase History:
Purchased from Rick Dillingham, 5/17/93 during a visit to his home. This was the last pot I bought from him before his death the following January. A photograh of Rick holding this bowl is published above and on the collection dedication page.